Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, September 7, 2017

Thursday, September 7, 2017: Maximum Shelf: What It's Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience

Basic Books: What It's Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience by Gregory Berns

Basic Books: What It's Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience by Gregory Berns

Basic Books: What It's Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience by Gregory Berns

Basic Books: What It's Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience by Gregory Berns

What It's Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience

by Gregory Berns

After 30 years in the sciences, first as a physician and eventually as a specialist who studied the workings of the human brain, Dr. Gregory Berns pondered a question that would change the course of his career: Can a dog be trained to lie inside an MRI scanner? The question arose from the saddest of circumstances: Newton, his favorite dog, had died recently. Berns found himself wondering about their relationship: "Had Newton loved me in the same way I had loved him? Or had it all been a sham, an innocent duplicity propagated by dogs to act all cute and stuff in exchange for food and shelter?"

His desire to find answers gave rise to the Dog Project, a scientific study of how dog brains--and the brains of other animals--actually work. He captures the most intriguing experiments and results of the Dog Project in his latest work, What It's Like to Be a Dog and Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience. The book builds on his previous book, the New York Times bestseller How Dogs Love Us, by explaining in smart but easily accessible language the history of psychological experimentation that informed the Dog Project, and what he learned from the study. Both aspects of the book--the descriptions of the experiments and their astonishing conclusions--are equally fascinating.

Berns's argument that MRI scans, which until now had been used almost exclusively on humans, can reveal much about a dog's inner world is persuasive from the first page. After a brief overview of other psychologists' successful MRI experiments on humans, Berns writes: "[These] techniques proved that, without a doubt, measures of physical activity in the brain could be translated into discrete mental states... [and]... if these techniques worked for humans, there was no reason why similar approaches couldn't be used to decode animal states of mind. Knowing what it was like to be a bat, or a dog, began to seem like a real possibility."

One of the Dog Project's first experiments involved training the dogs to complete a Go-NoGo task, an experiment drawn "from the field of human psychology" that "even children could do." At base, the experiment required the dogs to behave differently to two different but similar types of stimuli: when a dog heard a whistle, it was to poke a target with its nose inside the scanner. But when that same sound was accompanied by the presence of its owner standing with arms crossed, the dog was to lie perfectly still. The experiment was designed to light up the part of the dog's brain that operates self-control and, for the most part, the dogs cooperated at impressively high rates.

Among the book's highlights is its description of how individual dogs behaved in the lab. Each canine participant proved to have its own personality, and often, the results of the experiments seemed at odds with those personalities. That was a lesson in and of itself: "[O]nce again," Berns writes when describing a particularly surprising result, "I had fallen into the trap of thinking like a human instead of a dog."

Berns also describes successful experiments conducted with other animals. In one standout chapter, he introduces us to Ronan, a California sea lion that was weaned too early from her mother and therefore had grown dependent on food from humans. Rescuers from the Marine Mammal Center recognized that her behavior put her in harm's way and brought her to their facility, where she became a subject in the experiments of animal scientist Dr. Peter Cook. Cook sought to determine whether animals could follow a musical rhythm, and Ronan, always eager to please, seemed up to the challenge. I won't spoil whether she ultimately learned to bop to the beat, but I will say that Berns's descriptions of Ronan listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Backstreet Boys and Earth, Wind, and Fire are a delight.

The success of Berns's experiments and those of others in the field have led to additional animal behavior studies, and while not all of them have generated the results that Berns has hoped for, the majority point toward the existence of animal feelings and thought processes both richer and more complex than most scientists previously thought possible.

It's this proof that animals can feel and understand more than we realize that Berns hopes will change the way humans treat all animals, not just dogs. But he remains unconvinced that the Dog Project alone will have much influence: "I am not so naïve to believe that neuroscience will result in a flurry of legal changes for animals. The legislative and judicial spheres are notoriously resistant to science, not so much because people don't believe in science--although many do not--but because laws generally reflect society's moral intuitions. Laws aren't made because science proves something. Laws are made because enough people believe something is right or wrong." That's one reason why Berns has developed the Brain Ark, a project that involves collecting the brains of deceased animals for further study. Berns discusses the initiative in a moving epilogue that also touches upon the importance of the ark in the face of potentially devastating climate change. "Our goal," he writes, "is to catalog and describe the brains of the Earth's megafauna before they are gone."

Informative, entertaining and at times deeply moving, What It's Like to Be a Dog is an eye-opening and necessary addition to the literature of popular animal science. --Amy Brady

Basic Books, $28, hardcover, 320p., 9780465096244, September 5, 2017

Basic Books: What It's Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience by Gregory Berns

Gregory Berns: A Look Inside the Minds of Animals

photo: Helen Berns

Gregory Berns is the Distinguished Professor of Neuroeconomics at Emory University, where he directs the Center for Neuropolicy and Facility for Education & Research in Neuroscience. He's the author of three previous nonfiction books. His latest, What It's Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Neuroscience (Basic Books, Sept.), aims to answer the question of whether dogs experience emotions like people do.

What inspired you to develop the Dog Project?

My favorite dog--a pug named Newton--had died at the age of 15. After spending that long together, I really missed him and wondered whether he had possessed anything like the feelings I had for him. A year after his death, there was a bunch of publicity about military working dogs because of the dog on the bin Laden mission. When I saw pictures of dogs jumping out of helicopters, I realized that dogs could also be trained to go in MRI scanners. I had spent nearly two decades using MRI to study how the human brain responded to rewards and incentives. So why not use MRI to figure out how dogs' brains worked and what they think?

What findings from the Dog Project surprised you the most?

The project began in 2012 with just two dogs. One was Callie--a black terrier mix who replaced Newton. Since then, the project has grown to over 90 dogs that have learned to go in the MRI, and we have done a dozen different experiments on a range of topics, including the relative values of social reward and food reward, impulse control, face processing and smell and language. We have even developed an MRI task to predict which dogs would become good service dogs. What continues to surprise is the degree of similarity to humans in how dogs' brains function. To me, this suggests that dogs experience things much like we do (even without language to label everything.)

Has your research affected your relationship with your own pets?

I have a special relationship with Callie now. She is vastly different than Newton. Callie is very active and likes to learn new things. Our relationship seems to be based more on doing things together. It's made me realize that dogs like to do things because it's fun--not just because they might be rewarded. Of course, not all of the dogs in the house are like this. Like humans, they have different personalities and motivations for doing things.

In the chapter "Talk to the Animals," you discuss the differences between dogs and humans in terms of language processing. Dogs, it seems, understand the world through actions whereas humans understand the world through nouns/things. This is a gross oversimplification, but could you discuss what this might mean for your future research, and perhaps our future understanding of what it means to be a dog?

There is a famous dog named Chaser who knows over 1,000 words. When we tried to teach some of the MRI dogs the names of two objects, it was much harder than we anticipated. Eventually, they did learn the names of the objects, but the MRI showed that their brains were using different mechanisms than humans do. This is not surprising considering how large our brains are. We humans understand that words are symbolic placeholders for the things and actions they represent. But dogs seem to use words in a more concrete way--by linking the sound directly with the action to get an object. It doesn't seem to be abstract. We need to study this further, but understanding the limitations on the receiving end may help us communicate with dogs better.

Do you think that your investigations into animal consciousness will have an impact on how humans treat animals?  

I hope so. There has been a long tradition in science that dismisses the internal mental states of animals. Largely this is because animals can't speak, but that doesn't mean they don't have feelings or that they aren't aware of these feelings. I think the evidence is now showing that animals have mental lives much like we do. So that means you have to question how animals are being used in research and for food.

In your epilogue, you discuss your plans for a project you call the Brain Ark. What instigated this work, and what do you hope to achieve with it?

I became obsessed with an extinct animal called a thylacince--also known as the Tasmanian tiger--which looked rather doglike. The last known thylacine died in 1936. I searched the world for preserved specimens and used MRI to reconstruct their brains. The Brain Ark stemmed from this. I want to digitally archive the brains of megafauna before they disappear. The thinking is that by better understanding whatever is in a bear's brain that makes him a bear, or what's in an elephant’s brain that makes him an elephant, we can help these animals survive.

What's next for you?

I'm planning to take a deeper dive into how dogs learn and expand the Brain Ark to include as many species as possible. --Amy Brady


What It's Like to Be a Dog and Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience, Gregory Berns, Basic Books, 9780465096244, animal neuroscience, animal advocacy, nonfiction, shelf awareness, maximum shelf, author interview


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